Five minutes to curtain
Ilda peeks between blood-red drapes, hands clutching the heavy velvet with something beyond stage fright. Her empty stomach roils with revulsion as classical music drifts from the orchestra pit, the musicians moving marionette-clumsy. In certain dips and swells of the overture, the instruments’ lament sounds like a scream silenced behind an open palm.
Through indigo shadows and glinting cobwebs, the seats seem to stir and squirm. Moon-silver strings pull taut, then settle. The seats’ occupants still; the music draws a tremulous breath.
Let the show begin.
Five months to curtain
Ilda rushes down the hallway clad in her black leotard, satin ballet slippers an anxious susurrus against polished wood. Her pulse thrums in her throat and the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrists and ankles. Despite her stomach-churning anxiety, she’s early as usual. She sits on a bench and clasps her hands primly over her tights-clad knees. Her shadow is a flimsy thing against the wall. Her eyes dart up to the dim corners of the dance studio. Spiders gather there like shadows, weaving their perennial webs.
More girls and boys arrive. They step through the sliding glass doors in their ballet gait, all cygnine grace and bleeding, busted toenails. There’s Natalia, the foster-home girl who inspires awe and envy with her perfect pirouettes and lustrous skin. Loukia, who can follow the rhythm better than anyone, yet somehow always misses her cues in her attempt to avoid the other girls’ eyes, fearful of being caught staring at them too long. More dancers stream in, until the hallway outside Miss Gray’s class is filled with rustling tulle and chatter.
Then, of course, comes Miss Gray herself, the studio’s director and ballet instructor. Conversations quieten as she walks, angular and haughty. Her steps are strong, steady as a metronome. No one knows why she doesn’t dance anymore; no one dares ask.
She surveys the students over the sharp skeleton of her glasses. Purses her lavender-painted lips. “Well then. Time for practice.”
The door slides open, then shut. Dulcet music escapes through the crack below. Then, tachycardia piano notes, weaving through barres and mirrors, climbing up the steep mountain-slope of their climax. Light, too, flits through the cracks. Shadows spin while students dance as if their bodies will never tire. Generations of spiders work around the studio as well. Resolute, unrelenting, they weave their gossamer webs in arcane shapes and patterns only they seem capable of deciphering.
After the hour is up, tender calluses have formed, and old blisters have reopened. The dancers remove the tape from their toes as the spiders pull even more milky threads of silk out of their sore spinnerets. The spiders sing as they weave. The dancers can’t help but listen to the song, though not one of them hears the same tune, nor the same sticky-sweet words.
Ilda steps out first. She stumbles before catching herself with practiced ease, her hunger light-headed and yawning. It’s not the fear of gaining weight that prevents her from eating, no matter what her classmates like to gossip among themselves. No, it’s the crushing weight of her anxiety—undiagnosed, untreated—closing off both stomach and throat.
Don’t you deserve nice, sugary, savory things? Shouldn’t you eat that chocolate cake you’ve been craving? That cheeseburger?
No, Ilda thinks in response, hungry and nauseous all at once. My body is telling me I can’t. Am I dying, sick? I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Next comes Natalia. Pain stabs her nimble feet, but she doesn’t have enough money to cover the bus fare and neither of her foster parents are interested in picking her up. She will have to walk alone all the way to the house that isn’t home.
Don’t you want to be someone? the spiders sing, webs strumming like well-tuned instruments. Don’t you want money and fame and a ticket to a better life?
No, Natalia thinks, I don’t think I’ll ever get that. Not when the world is already against me.
Loukia follows, leaving a swath of space between her and Natalia. As she catches the scent of Natalia’s strawberry lotion, heat and shame spread viscous through her bloodstream.
Don’t you want to kiss her? the chorus of spiders croons. Don’t you want to go on a date with this girl?
No, Loukia thinks, rabbit-fast and panicking. My parents would never allow it. I’ll outgrow these thoughts if I focus on my dancing, if enough boys admire me on stage.
The students sway out of the studio, and only Miss Gray remains. There’s no one waiting for her back home—just as she likes it. She sits at her desk, reading the Arts and Culture section, which becomes a monochromatic flurry of pages as she throws the newspaper across the room. It lands on the very page that sparked her ire, a scathing critique signed by her ex-husband. Their cutthroat industry holds no soft place to land for an aged, creaky-boned dancer such as herself. Yet, Petros’ diatribe against her old company, her new school, and her extinguished career has further stripped her of her dignity. Stepping on the newspaper, she stalks across the room, turns off the music, lowers the lights. In the hushed darkness, the spidersong is louder than ever.
A melody that only the vulnerable can hear.
Don’t you want to reclaim your glory? Don’t you want to be admired, appreciated, adored? Remember what happened at your last ballet, your swan song?
Yes, Miss Gray thinks, staring for a long time at her old pointe shoes arranged across her shelves. Museum-like, mausoleum-like. The fine hairs at the back of her arms stir at the memory of her last time on stage. And what had come earlier. The fall of the former prima ballerina. The replacement. Miss Gray moved from the shadows of obscurity, thrust to the blinding spotlight.
Her lips part wetly. I want.
Later, after Ilda has had to slap her hand over her mouth at the mere smell of her mother’s roast beef, after Natalia has trudged home to read a bedtime story to her younger foster siblings and collapse across her bunk bed, after Loukia has kissed her parents goodnight and muttered her shame-drenched prayers, after Miss Gray has fallen asleep in her living room bathed in streetlight and roiling spite, the world is quiet.
The four dancers sleep, and they dream of silken applause.
“A show?” everyone repeats as one.
Miss Gray offers a beatific smile. “That’s right, class, I’ve contacted the local theater. We’ll dance Swan Lake on stage as a school, and for that we’ll need a bigger audience than any other show, so make sure to spread the word.”
The boys cheer. The girls grab each other’s arms in their excitement, bruising force. All except for Loukia, who stares down at her tattered pointe shoes, gray-pink as a dove.
“You know what this means, right?” Natalia whispers to the others through a dazzling smirk. “She’ll work us to the bone.” Not that Natalia minds. Being in the studio is better than being at home. Extensive rehearsals, blood, and sweat are all preferable to the alternative: rolling into a ball, resigning to her fate.
Miss Gray’s steely blue eyes zero in on Natalia, who shrinks despite her bravado. “That’s right. We need to be ready.”
All the dancers present have dreamed of being in their own show. They’re hardly new at this, but they were always at the back, the ugly ducklings as the swan prima ballerina leaped and rotated with abject elegance, center stage. What will it feel like, to have all spotlights, all eyes on them?
As if reading everyone’s thoughts, Miss Gray says, “We need to be perfect.”
Ilda’s stomach clenches at the thought of perfectionism. Since she was young, she had been told she needed perfect grades, perfect behavior. But in order to be perfect, her body has learned well the routes of self-immolation. What will be left of her? A slice? A sliver? Her mother will be beside herself with joy once she learns the news about the ballet. She’ll shower Ilda with little gifts and words of praise. Treats of chocolate and spun sugar she will be too nauseous to appreciate.
Loukia’s thoughts are drifting along the same wavelength. She can just picture her parents grinning with pride from the first row. It’s not the sort of pride associated with glitter and rainbows, but the good Christian pride that comes from having a daughter who is beautiful and talented, graceful and ladylike. A daughter who would never even think of being romantically involved with another girl.
Natalia sees with bitter clarity that nobody will come to watch her on opening night. But a talent scout might. Impressing them—earning herself a dance scholarship—is her ticket out of here, and she’s doing to grab at it with her bitten fingernails before it flies away for good.
Miss Gray keeps on beaming as if the smile is sewn across her face, cheeks trembling with the effort.
“Excellent, children,” she says. “Let’s get to work.”
It should be noted that the spiders don’t understand concepts such as good and evil. They are neither malicious nor noble. In simple terms, they absorb a place’s energy. People’s intentions—their desires and denials—soak into the fine silk, dyeing the webs with invisible ink as the spiders spin their preternatural song.
The young dancers work in a haze down below, billowing tutus and fraying pointe shoes drawing comet-shaped swirls across waxed hardwood floors, arabesques pushing the dancers’ lithe bodies to the sweet-sour edge. The spidersong remains unchanging, and so do the dancers’ thoughts, caught in a constant feedback loop. Don’t you want, don’t you deserve?
Yes, Miss Gray thinks from the best vantage point of the mirror-wrapped room. Oh yes, we do.
A lot happens in these five months of rehearsals, under the spiders’ watchful gazes. When things become unbearable at her foster home, Natalia moves into the studio, pushing herself further than she ever thought she could go. This prompts Miss Gray to give Natalia the role of Odette, the Swan Princess herself.
Ilda’s mother complains about rigged games and Miss Gray playing favorites, ignoring her perfect little daughter. Some part of Ilda—the one used to daily vomit and anxiety rashes—is sick with relief. She’s glad she won’t find out what would happen to her body were she to become the prima ballerina.
Somewhere between one rehearsal and the next, Loukia stops looking away, and instead looks at Natalia head-on. And Natalia looks back. She smiles. After Odette has finished her first pas de deux with Prince Siegfried, a boy named Costas, Loukia and Natalia meet in the studio’s empty changing room. Still clad in tickling white feathers, they share a long-lasting kiss that crescendos in its intensity.
Things happen, and desires unravel, witnessed by the generations of spiders residing in Miss Gray’s studio.
“My children,” Miss Gray says before they leave for the dress rehearsal, the prova generale. She’s clutching a ratty magazine, claws ripping into her ex-husband’s latest negative review. “We are ready.”
The spiders leave the studio, tangled in the dancers’ sleek hair, the slippery tulle of their tutus, and the shiny surface of their leotards. Black arachnids fill every corner of the theater as the girls head backstage for the finishing touches.
Four minutes to curtain
Loukia and Natalia are fixing the straps of each other’s costumes, bent close together. They’ll have to pull apart soon, once they leave their little backstage cocoon, spidersilk-soft. They’ll have to face judgmental parents and absent guardians. They’ll soak up the crowd’s applause, Loukia because she needs a cover, a reason for her parents to believe she is the daughter they want, and Natalia because she needs, something different, something better. But for now, they trail their fingers across each other’s shoulders and hum contentedly.
Miss Gray, who is dressed in steel and charcoal, a stark contrast to the dancers’ pure white, whispers to the rest of her students sterling words of encouragement. Her eyes are deep and dark as a spider’s underbelly.
Amid clouds of perfume and shimmery dust, Ilda’s stomach rumbles. It’s hunger, yes, her constant companion, but it’s also something else. It tastes like bile, which is also the taste of fear. She retches, but only sour water floods her mouth. There’s nothing else to come up. She closes her eyes and breathes through the nausea. The spidersong is distant here, blanketed by dark shadows and burgundy velvet. It sounds like static in Ilda’s ears, the signal breaking up.
Aren’t you tired of being perfect?
Don’t you want?
Don’t you want?
Don’t you want to stop?
She peeks through the curtains at the packed theater, the room mausoleum-silent despite the sheer number of its audience members. The cobwebbed sea of people glints argent and milky white. Everyone is woven into their seats, unable to move, mouths threaded shut, eyes held forcefully open so that they cannot blink and miss even a millisecond of the performance.
Ilda steps back, letting the curtains fall. She’s starving and exhausted, five months of nonstop ballet practice finally catching up to her, the fifteen years she’s been alive lumbering close behind.
“Why?” she asks, mouth dry and dusty. “Why are we doing this?”
The rest of the dancers descend, surrounding her before she’s even finished. Loukia and Natalia’s hands clamp around her arms and shoulders, holding her in place with a force beyond the wiry strength of their battered bodies.
Miss Gray slinks in front of her in a slow, calculated way that prickles her skin.
“Oh, Ilda.” The hand on her cheek is almost maternal. “Have we pushed you too hard? Are you not ready?” Her grip tightens around Ilda’s chin, thumb digging into the divot there, straining the roots of her teeth.
“Our poor Ilda,” Miss Gray croons in sticky spun threads. “Were you not made for greatness?”
Up on the stage, the gilded members of Miss Gray’s ballet company spin and sway. Though they’re meant to be swans, their movements are much too ferocious in all their abject grace. From their long limbs spew forth longer shadows, weaving in and out of each other, an intricate web of ache and desire.
Natalia embodies her role well, swinging and flying, already imagining herself out of this life of misery.
Loukia moves beside her, looking at Natalia with unconcealed affection. The spiders know enough to crawl across her parents’ lids, covering their eyes and shielding the girls and their attraction from view. Not because the girls have something to hide, but because the adults don’t deserve to witness their joy after spitting in its face for so long.
Why, Ilda had asked them earlier. High on newfound freedom, Loukia wants to laugh and ask, Why not? Why would we ever stop?
Miss Gray watches from the wings. Glee grips her at the prospect of her ex-husband’s ire once he reads all about her dancers’s perfect performance. She remembers being young and lithe and ambitious herself, once upon a time. Watching her friend and lover—their old studio’s prima ballerina—spin like a swan-winged angel in the empty theater. Miss Gray’s hungry hands that had wrought pleasure from her lover, delivering the final push. A swift fall, then a swifter replacement and rise to fame.
Ilda isn’t dancing. She sits trapped on a front-row seat, spiders skittering spindly legs across her tear-moist cheeks. The webs stick to her skin, powerful fibers tightening around her chest whenever she tries to heave a breath through her straitjacket shroud. The spidersong swells into a symphony as the classical music wails on. Spiderlings force her eyelids open while wise grandmother spiders spin their webs past Ilda’s chapped lips, down into the gaping emptiness of her stomach.
She watches the performance, smothered by all this beauty.